October 6 , 2014
Carl Sandburg and his young friends were quite taken with Jesse James, a legendary figure in the decades after the end of the Civil War. They read the paperback books about him, which sold for ten cents each, and believed that Jesse James was a modern Robin Hood. They could picture in their minds how Jesse was shot in his home by one of his gang members in 1882.
Jesse Woodson James was born in Clay County, Missouri, in 1847. His father was a commercial hemp grower and Baptist minister. He died when Jesse was three years old. The elder James had gone to the California gold fields to preach to the gold seekers and died there. Mrs. James remarried twice more and had several children by each of her husbands.
Missouri was a border state during the Civil War. Many of its farmers had come from the South and brought slaves with them to do farm work. Clay County was the center of this migration. After the passage of the Kansas-Nebraska Act by Congress in 1854, there was a great deal of turmoil. Different factions fought over whether Kansas was going to be slave or free.
When the Civil War began in 1861, guerrilla warfare broke out in Missouri. The James brothers participated in these “bushwacking” activities. Federal troops fought secessionists and tried to chase them from the state. Atrocities were committed on both sides. A major battle was fought at Wilson's Creek.
After the war ended, the Andrew Johnson Administration established a new constitution for the state which freed slaves and temporarily denied Confederates their civil rights. This created a very volatile situation. The James brothers began robbing banks which were now in the possession of Northerners and former members of the Union Army. For the gang, robbing these banks was a form of revenge and it didn't matter if a cashier or teller was killed in the process.
John Edwards, founder and editor of the Kansas City Times, campaigned through his newspaper to return Missouri to the hands of secessionist politicians. Jesse James wrote letters to the newspaper expressing his pride in the Confederacy. They were supported by favorable editorials. The James letters became more political as time passed.
The James brothers joined the ColeYounger gang in 1868 and began robbing banks from Iowa to Texas and from Kansas to West Virginia. Robbing trains to get the express company cash on board was a method of getting even with railroads, which seemed to be taking over the country.
In 1874 the Pinkerton Detective Agency was hired by the Adams Express Company to foil the train robberies. The following year the Pinkertons raided the James farm. They fire-bombed the James home and Jesse's mother lost an arm after being shot. One of her sons was killed. There was public outrage toward the Pinkerton detectives.
In 1876, a bank in Northfield, Minnesota, was robbed and a shootout resulted in several deaths. The James-Younger gang was decimated. Jesse James went into hiding under an assumed name. Robert Ford joined the James gang and in 1882, shot Jesse in the back for the reward money. The death of Jesse James was sensational news across the country. He was compared to Robin Hood because he never robbed passengers on the trains the gang had stopped. It was after the larger amount of money in the express company's safe. There is no known record that the James gang ever gave away any of the money they stole. They kept it for themselves.
Since the death of Jesse James, songs have been written about him and his cohorts. The activities of the James and Younger gangs have been the subject of books, silent movies, radio and television programs. As recently as 2007, Brad Pitt appeared in a movie playing the part of Jesse James and Casey Affleck played the part of Robert Ford.
More than a hundred and thirty years have passed and money is still being made off Jesse James' name. The profits are probably much larger than the amounts stolen by him.